The War on Christmas: Part 94

The annual hysteria is manufactured and unnecessary and needs to stop.

Well, it's that time of year again. The mother of all manufactured controversies. It's the War on Christmas!

Once again, Christians are lashing out at secularists and the non-religious under the pretence that Christmas is under attack. In the United States, there is renewed controversy over billboards and bus ads carrying atheist messages.

The Fox News host Bill O'Reilly claimed the posters were designed only "to offend people who enjoy Christmas". So what are the messages that are causing such dire offence during this holiest of seasons? "Millions of people are good without God", "Don't believe in God? You are not alone" and "You know it's a myth. This year, celebrate reason!".

Can someone explain how encouraging people to be intellectually honest about their beliefs is offensive?

These posters and slogans are not designed to convert believers into non-believers. Even the most controversial slogan ("You know it's a myth") is clearly aimed at people who already think that way. It is a means of encouraging non-believers to be public about who they are and what they do or do not believe. Is that so dangerous?

Why is it OK in the US and in Britain to plaster Christian slogans and posters everywhere, but when secular causes do the same it is "an attack" on Christianity and on Christmas? It seems to happen all the time.

Remember when the "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life" slogans appeared on buses and billboards in 2008. Or, the example that won't seem to go away, that Birmingham City Council once had a winter marketing campaign that it called "Winterval". There are always these types of stories in the news, and they are totally manufactured and utterly unnecessary.

In contrast to these "attacks", there is the Christian side of the argument. I see a poster at a bus stop every morning on the way in to work which depicts an image of a child in the womb with a halo around its head. The poster reads "Christmas starts with Christ". Is that not the same thing that these atheist posters are doing, but for Christianity? Of course it is. Yet, where is the controversy? I have seen nobody complain about these posters and have seen no news stories about them causing offence. Christian preaching is apparently fine, whereas atheists are held to a much harsher standard because people don't like what they're saying.

As an atheist, I could find the poster very annoying, mostly because the only way in which Christmas starts with Christ is in the word. The celebration itself pre-dates Christianity by a great many years. Stories were being told of gods being born as men on 25 December to a virgin mother for centuries before Jesus was ever reported to have lived. Christmas the celebration does not start with Christ. Christianity hijacked 25 December from paganism in order to make conversion easier. After all, if you still celebrate on the same day, what difference does it make?

Despite that, though, I am not going to demand that the poster be taken down, or claim that secular society is "under attack", or anything like that. That is because the person or organisation that commissioned the poster was well within its rights to do so. Just like atheist groups have the right to encourage people to be honest about their non-belief. It is not an attack. It never is.

The "War on Christmas" rhetoric has become a perpetual-motion machine of modern journalism. Every year, reactionary journalists will howl about some "PC" measure that is waging war on Christmas, and not-so-reactionary journalists will have to take their time to debunk the claims.

I appreciate the irony that, by writing this piece, I have become a cog in the perpetual "War on Christmas" machine, but it really does need to stop. There is no war on Christmas. Let people put up posters expressing their beliefs, and let people celebrate the season however they choose. I, for one, will be indulging my Christmas tradition of watching The Muppet Christmas Carol.

Getty
Show Hide image

Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle